Tag Archives: Marsh and Cope

Dinosaurs dragging their bellies—Huh?

Isaac Newton famously wrote in 1676,“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” This gets to the heart of the scientific process—a gradual addition and refinement of human knowledge and understanding of the natural world. But, of course, sometimes even giants had wacky ideas.

The particular “giant” to whom I refer is Charles H. Sternberg, famed fossil collector. Sternberg began collecting fossils when he was seventeen, at a time when it was not exactly commonplace, in about 1867. And he dedicated his life to this unusual pastime, founding a family of fossil collectors when his sons continued the tradition for a second generation. Together, the Sternberg family collected a huge number of fossils for museums and science. There is hardly a major museum in the world that does not have one of their discoveries on display.

Sternberg started his career in the hills of western Kansas, collecting fossil plants from the Dakota Formation. He sent his specimens back to the young Smithsonian Institution, for which he received a letter of acknowledgment that he treasured his whole life. He was bitten by the “fossil bug.”

Edward and Charles Sternberg

A rare photograph of Charles Sternberg (right) with his twin brother Edward (left).

By 1875, he enrolled in college where he studied briefly under Benjamin Mudge. Mudge organized a fossil collecting trip for 1876 to collect for O. C. Marsh, the Yale College paleontologist. Sternberg was too late to sign up with Mudge, and bitterly disappointed, and somewhat brazenly, he wrote a letter to Edward D. Cope, Marsh’s rival.

Sternberg wrote, “I put my soul into the letter I wrote him, for this was my last chance. I told him of my love for science, and of my earnest longing to enter the chalk of western Kansas and make a collection of its wonderful fossils, no matter what it might cost me in discomfort and danger. I said, however, that I was too poor to go at my own expense, and asked him to send me three hundred dollars to buy a team of ponies, a wagon, and a camp outfit, and to hire a cook and driver. I sent no recommendations from well-known men as to my honesty or executive ability, mentioning only my work in the Dakota Group.” (Sternberg 1909, pg 33).

Sternberg anxiously awaited a reply, and when he opened Cope’s letter, a draft for $300 fell out, a very significant sum. So began his professional fossil hunting career. Over the years he collected throughout the American and Canadian west. In the twilight of his career he semi-retired to San Diego, and was allowed to use the title of curator at the natural history museum.

Museums and libraries are marvelous places, full of fascinating treasures. It was while reading in the archive at Fort Hays State University’s Forsyth Library that I came across a carefully saved clipping of an article from the  Los Angles Time Sunday Magazine from December 20, 1931, titled “The habits of dinosaurs,” written from an interview with the 80 year old fossil collector.

In the article, Sternberg is quoted as giving his vision of the life of some of the dinosaurs that he had collected over the many years. While I recognize that it is not really fair to judge the views of earlier experts, especially with the perspective of almost three quarters of a century of additional knowledge, but it can be damn funny.

Sternberg is quoted as authoritatively saying, “Dinosaurs were lizards. They stood and walked like lizards, not like elephants or rhinos. That is to say, the normal positions of their feet were outside the line of the body, just like the alligators of today, not inside or even with the line of the body, as are the feet of horses, elephants and other mammals. Moreover, the dinosaur, instead of standing up, on straight legs, as usually pictured, bent its legs outward, as do the lizards, and dragged it belly on the ground, again like the alligators, monitors and other large lizards of the present day.”

Dinosaur reconstructions of that period typically showed dinosaurs with spindly, lizard-like limbs, and tails dragging, but with a generally upright posture. Sternberg evidently did not agree, arguing in favor of his views with some odd reasoning.

Citing fossils of preserved dinosaur skin, he said, “Furthermore, the skin on the lower side of the abdomen of this dinosaur was much thinner and more delicate than on other parts of the body. This is further and strong argument for my claim that the dinosaur dragged its belly on the ground, as do the alligators of today, which so protect their vital parts from carnivorous animals…you may be sure that no tender-stomached dinosaur, whether it weighed forty tons or forty pounds, would voluntarily expose its tenderest and most vital parts to attacks by the tyrant dinosaur or any other carnivorous creature by walking erect.”

Illustration from Los Angles Times Sunday Magazine, 1931

Illustration from Los Angles Times Sunday Magazine showing Sternberg's idea of dinosaur stance.

I totally agree. I hate walking around with my “tenderest” parts exposed. The accompanying illustration of Sternberg’s vision of the Mesozoic is hilarious, with giant sauropod (long-necked) dinosaurs hunkered down, presumably guarding soft spots. I am not really sure how Sternberg expected it would work for a forty ton animal to push itself along the ground with its legs sprawled out to the side, much less how it would support its own weight on its chest, but details, details.

Even though the article claims that Sternberg was a “man of facts and not fancies,” he was prone to exuberant musing about the prehistoric beasts he collected. While he could be wacky, we owe a great debt to the entire family for their contributions to science.

Further reading about the Sternberg family:

Everhart, M. Oceans of Kansas website, summary of the work of Charles H. Sternberg.

Everhart, M. J. 2005. Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Liggett, G. A. 2001. Dinosaurus to Dung Beetles: Expeditions Through Time, Guide to the Sternberg Museum of Natural History. Sternberg Museum of Natural History, Hays, Kansas.

Rogers, K. 1991. The Sternberg Fossil Hunters: A Dinosaur Dynasty. Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, Montana.

Sternberg, C. H. 1909. The Life of a Fossil Hunter.

Other interesting dinosaur facts are found here at Boneblogger. Search or select the category for more.

Sternberg, C. H. 1917. Hunting Dinosaurs in the Bad Lands of the Red Deer River Alberta, Canada. Charles H. Sternberg, San Diego.

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Giant Short-Faced Bear: a Northern California Original

In 1878, James D. Richardson explored Potter Creek Cave in Shasta County, California. He found the skull of a bear beneath several inches of cave dirt, and he sent the specimen to Edward D. Cope, who determined that it was the type specimen for a new species of American “cave bear” (Cope, 1879).


Reconstruction of the Giant Short-faced Bear, Arctodus

When a scientist studies an animal and determines that it is something new to science, they set up a name for it and designate a type specimen. The type specimen, or type, holds a special significance as the “name bearer” for the entire species, and subsequent investigations of that species make reference to the type. They are often kept in special collections within the museums that hold them, or at least given special protection over other specimens. For example, they often are not loaned out as other specimens in the museum collection might be, so there is less risk of damage. (For a description of geologic type sections, see formations).

All too often the type specimens of fossil species have been based on fragmentary material or poor descriptions, making a full understanding of the species more difficult. A famous example of this is the story of the dinosaur Apatosaurus.

Apatosaurus was named by Cope’s rival, O. C. Marsh (Marsh, 1877). Both Cope and Marsh were rushing to describe more fossil species than the other, and their famous rivalry led to shoddy work by both men on occasion. Marsh said the type specimen of Apatosaurus was a “nearly complete specimen in excellent preservation.” However, he only briefly described the vertebrae of this new animal in his haste to publish the new name.

Later, Marsh published the name Brontosaurus, with a few comments on the pelvis and vertebrae of that type (Marsh, 1879). Brontosaurus soon became widely known to the public, and to many, represented the quintessential dinosaur. However, by 1903 Elmer Riggs recognized that Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus were in fact the same species of dinosaur, and since Apatosaurus was named two years before Brontosaurus, that name had priority and was the name that should be used (Riggs, 1903). However, the old name Brontosaurus was in such popular usage that it took many decades for the public to catch on. Now, it seems that every young dinosaur buff knows of this name change and is comfortable with it.

Since the first Short-faced Bear fossil to be recognized in North America was from Northern California, the type specimen, and the name of the bear, Arctodus simus, will be forever linked to the region. This “American Cave Bear” is now known from over 100 localities from Alaska to Mexico, east coast to west (Richards et al., 1996). It was a wide-spread species of the late Pleistocene Ice Age.

What is perhaps most striking about this bear is its size. Arctodus is the largest mammalian carnivore ever discovered. It is larger than any of the modern bears, tigers, or lions by a significant degree. An estimate for the largest Arctodus found to date suggests that if the individual was “lean” it weighed from 1,300 to 1,400 pounds (Nelson and Madsen, 1983). In contrast, a male lion weighs about 450 pounds. (See How big was the GSFB?)

So this imposing carnivore of the Ice Age roamed across North America, and the North State can forever claim it as its own. A full skeletal mount of this beast can be seen in the new Gateway Science Museum at Chico State.

COPE, E. D. 1879. The cave bear of California. American Naturalist, 13:791.

MARSH, O. C. 1877. Notice of new dinosaurian reptiles from the Jurassic Formation. American Journal of Science, 14:514-516.

MARSH, O. C. 1879. Notice of new Jurassic reptiles. American Journal of Science, 18:501-505.

NELSON, M. E., AND J. H. MADSEN, JR. 1983. A giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus) from the Pleistocene of northern Utah. Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, 86(1):1-9.

RICHARDS, R. L., C. S. CHURCHER, AND W. D. TURNBULL. 1996. Distribution and size variation in North American short-faced bears, Arctodus simus, p. 191-246. In K. M. Stewart and K. L. Seymour (eds.), Palaeoecology and Palaeoenvironments of Late Cenozoic Mammals: Tributes to the Career of C.S. Churcher. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.

RIGGS, E. S. 1903. Structure and relationships of opisthocoelian dinosaurs. Part
1: Apatosaurus Marsh. Field Columbian Museum, Geological Series, 2:165-196.

Related Posts:
How big was the GSFB?
Denning behavior
GSFB reexamined

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